Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders
472 U.S. 749 (1985)

Annotate this Case
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, 472 U.S. 749 (1985)

Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders

No. 83-18

Argued March 21, 1984

Decided June 26, 1985

472 U.S. 749

Syllabus

Petitioner credit reporting agency sent a report to five subscribers indicating that respondent construction contractor had filed a voluntary petition for bankruptcy. The report was false, and grossly misrepresented respondent's assets and liabilities. Thereafter, petitioner issued a corrective notice, but respondent was dissatisfied with this notice and brought a defamation action in Vermont state court, alleging that the false report had injured its reputation and seeking damages. After trial, the jury returned a verdict in respondent's favor and awarded both compensatory or presumed damages and punitive damages. But the trial court believed that Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U. S. 323, controlled, and granted petitioner's motion for a new trial on the ground that the instructions to the jury permitted it to award damages on a lesser showing than "actual malice." The Vermont Supreme Court reversed, holding that Gertz was inapplicable to nonmedia defamation actions.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

143 Vt. 66, 461 A.2d 414, affirmed.

JUSTICE POWELL, joined by JUSTICE REHNQUIST and JUSTICE O'CONNOR, concluded that:

1. The fact that the jury instructions in question referred to "malice," "lack of good faith," and "actual malice," did not require the jury to find "actual malice," as respondent contends, where the instructions failed to define any of these terms. Consequently, the trial court correctly concluded that the instructions did not satisfy Gertz. Pp. 472 U. S. 753-755.

2. Permitting recovery of presumed and punitive damages in defamation cases absent a showing of "actual malice" does not violate the First Amendment when the defamatory statements do not involve matters of public concern. Pp. 472 U. S. 755-763.

(a) In light of the reduced constitutional value of speech on matters of purely private concern, as opposed to speech on matters of public concern, the state interest in compensating private individuals for injury to their reputation adequately supports awards of presumed and punitive damages -- even absent a showing of "actual malice." Cf. Gertz. Pp. 472 U. S. 755-761.

(b) Gertz, supra, does not apply to this case. Petitioner's credit report concerned no public issue but was speech solely in the individual

Page 472 U. S. 750

interest of the speaker and its specific business audience. This particular interest warranted no special protection when it was wholly false and damaging to the victim's business reputation. Moreover, since the credit report was made available to only five subscribers, who, under the subscription agreement, could not disseminate it further, it cannot be said that the report involved any strong interest in the free flow of commercial information. And the speech here, like advertising, being solely motivated by a desire for profit, is hardy and unlikely to be deterred by incidental state regulation. In any event, the market provides a powerful incentive to a credit reporting agency to be accurate, since false reporting is of no use to creditors. Pp. 472 U. S. 761-763.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE concluded that Gertz is inapplicable to this case, because the allegedly defamatory expression involved did not relate to a matter of public concern, and that no other reason was needed to dispose of the case. Pp. 472 U. S. 763-764.

JUSTICE WHITE concluded that Gertz should not be applied to this case either because Gertz should be overruled or because the defamatory publication in question did not deal with a matter of public importance. P. 472 U. S. 774.

POWELL, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which REHNQUIST and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., post, p. 472 U. S. 763, and WHITE, J., post, p. 472 U. S. 765, filed opinions concurring in the judgment. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 472 U. S. 774.

Page 472 U. S. 751

Primary Holding
A false statement made negligently is not protected under the First Amendment if it involves a private matter rather than a matter of public concern. Malice need not be shown for a defamation claim to succeed.
Facts
Dun & Bradstreet incorrectly informed the creditors of Greenmoss that it had filed for bankruptcy. Greenmoss demanded and received a correction, but it felt that this was inadequate. In the ensuing libel action, Greenmoss received compensatory and punitive damages. Dun & Bradstreet argued that damages were not appropriate because Greenmoss had not proved actual malice. Only the negligence of an individual employee was responsible for the inaccurate statement.

While the trial court initially granted the motion for a new trial, the state supreme court reversed.

Opinions

Plurality

  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

The First Amendment extends less protection to speech that does not involve a matter of public concern than to speech that does. This weak level of protection should not trump the strong state interest in allowing its citizens to receive appropriate remedies for defamation. Actual malice did not need to be shown for a damages award to be constitutional.

Dissent

  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • John Paul Stevens

Brennan agreed with Dun & Bradstreet that actual malice needed to be shown, even when speech is not on a matter of public concern, for a defamation claim to survive First Amendment protections of speech.

Concurrence

  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)

Concurrence

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)

Case Commentary

This case shows that the First Amendment does not carry strong weight for non-public speech about a matter lacking in public concern, and thus it is easier to pursue a defamation claim in those circumstances.

Disclaimer: Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Disclaimer: Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.